The final whistle at Rio Tinto Stadium last night provided a rather glaring shock to the system in an otherwise straightforward series of CONCACAF Champions League group stage encounters for MLS.
Real Salt Lake crashed out of the competition after C.S. Herediano gritted its way to a 0-0 draw on a chilly night along the Wasatch Front. The result failed to reflect the way RSL bossed the game and yet showed exactly why the Claret-and-Cobalt continues to struggle in front of goal without Álvaro Saborío in the lineup at the same time. The exact causes and the infuriating final stages do not alter the harsh conclusion. The exit constitutes a bitter blow for a proud franchise that places a greater emphasis on this competition than most of its peers.
In previous years, RSL's inability to dispatch a Costa Rican foe on home soil to secure passage to the quarterfinals may have represented the standard operating practice and a clarion call for the league to bolster its Champions League efforts. Not in this year's edition of the tournament. Not with the way three other MLS sides – with the exception of the doomed Toronto FC ahead of its demise at the hands of Santos Laguna tonight – have navigated through the group stage in this edition of the tournament.
The revamped setup could have increased the peril for Liga MX or MLS clubs even as it provided modest relief to fixture congestion concerns. A reduced slate means a smaller margin for error. One slip can put a team in a tough spot with only four group games on the schedule. Just ask CD Guadalajara, RSL or Tigres UANL. All three teams entered the final matchday in search of the victory required to secure a berth in the knockout stages. One of them has already fallen.
No such issues faced Houston on Tuesday night as the Dynamo showed how other teams have sidestepped those potential pitfalls. Dominic Kinnear trusted his reserves to see him through the group stage. They repaid that faith in spades in the first three group matches to set up a scenario in which a draw or a victory against Honduran giants Olimpia would see them through. Kinnear once again relied on them to procure the necessary result at BBVA Compass Stadium.
The postseason-influenced decision looked somewhat dubious after a Douglas Caetano free kick consolidated Olimpia's first-half superiority and injected some doubt into this referee-marred affair. Matters improved significantly after the interval with Kinnear's first-half ejection and the gravity of the situation serving to spark the home side. André Hainault's header shortly after the hour wiped away any of those concerns and whisked the Dynamo through to the quarterfinals.
Houston's safe passage would stand out as perhaps one of the accomplishments of the round if not for the success enjoyed by Los Angeles and Seattle under similar circumstances. Galaxy boss Bruce Arena fielded a youthful side and watched his young guns secure a berth with a match to spare. Seattle coach Sigi Schmid opted for a more blended side in Sounders FC's first three games and reaped the same benefits.
All three clubs will go through to the quarterfinals, though their tasks remain up in the air for a couple of days due to a seeding process based upon the total number of points gathered by a team in group play. Houston harmed its prospects of a semifinal berth with its inability to secure maximum points against 10-man Olimpia. It will likely enter its tie next year with an upset in mind. Los Angeles and Seattle must secure victories in their remaining matches against Isidro Metapán and Marathón to bolster their hopes of a higher seed. They will likely turned to weakened sides to fulfill that brief.
For now, the focus remains on the accomplishments in the present rather than the tasks ahead in the future. MLS continues to improve in this competition year by year. Only the frustration in Utah kept MLS from securing half of the quarterfinal berths. In numerical terms, this trio of representatives matches the output from last year. In terms of the overall tenor of group play, this delegation sets a new standard that other MLS teams must meet in coming years.
All of this hard work may come crashing down next year. Mexican sides remain heavily favored in the latter stages of the competition. They boast stronger squads and possess more resources to bolster them. But the fact that a home draw and a surprising ouster of a potential fourth entrant in the final eight indicates MLS has at least reached a point where it can affirm its place as the second strongest league in this region with a minimum of fuss.
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